John McCloskey (1810-1885), second Archbishop of New York, was a man of firsts: the first native-born New Yorker to be ordained a priest; the first native-born American to become Archbishop of New York; the first American archbishop to be elevated to the cardinalate; and, therefore, the first American able to participate in the election of a new pope. Unfortunately for Cardinal McCloskey, he arrived in Rome too late to participate in the 1878 conclave that elected Leo XIII – in just three ballots.
The primary secondary source on John McCloskey’s life is a biography written by his former secretary, John Farley, New York’s fourth archbishop and second cardinal. But The Life of John Cardinal McCloskey: First Prince of the Church in America has been described by the eminent priest-historian John Tracy Ellis (1905-1992) as unworthy of credence. The book, Ellis says, was not actually written by Cardinal Farley at all but by Msgr. Peter Guilday (1884-1947), who told his friend Fr. Ellis that Farley’s secretary (the future fifth archbishop and cardinal), Patrick Hayes, “had ‘castrated’ . . . the work.”
Well, it is a tangle: His Eminence (Hayes) editing His Eminence (Farley) “writing” about His Eminence (McCloskey) – all in the somewhat hagiographic style of episcopal biographies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And . . . the work was ongoing even as Archbishop Michael Corrigan, McCloskey’s successor, lay sick and dying.
Perhaps the dearth of writing about John McCloskey follows from the fact that he was much less colorful and controversial than his predecessor, the great John Joseph Hughes. As Michael Glazier and Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley have written (1997): “Temperamentally, the quiet, peace-loving McCloskey was the exact opposite of the assertive and confrontational Hughes.” Or, as McCloskey was described in an earlier (1905) account:
In temperament. . .the very contrary of his patron [Hughes]. Delicate of build, of a sound constitution, yet without surplus vigor and energy, all his life was forced to husband his physical resources, to avoid unusual strain, and to make up for heroic effort by the persistent and well-regulated labor of each day.
Farley’s “castrated” book – the only full-length biography of McCloskey – is at least a guide to the outline of the cardinal’s life, although in writing about McCloskey, I keep in mind what Msgr. Shelley recently told me: “I came across a small box of materials in the New York Archives that contains some materials that were used to write [Farley’s] McCloskey biography, but I do not think that I found anything valuable there.” Having spent many hours in those archives, I know what he means.
John McCloskey has not inspired historians the way his predecessor has or as Cardinal Timothy Dolan excites journalists today. Sometimes, it seems, McCloskey is an obscure footnote – or even a bungled reference.
McCloskey by Mathew Brady
An example of this appears in two references to Cardinal McCloskey in an interesting biography of Thomas Ewing Sherman, son of Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, who – against his father’s wishes – became a Jesuit priest. According to the author of the biography, General Sherman was a friend of the cardinal (as well as of Archbishops Ryan of Philadelphia and Purcell of Cincinnati – in Sherman’s home state, Ohio), and it was to McCloskey that the Protestant general wrote (c. 1880), urgently requesting that the cardinal discourage Thomas from entering the priesthood. McCloskey could not and would not do so, which left the old warrior deeply bitter. That much the biographer got right.
The trouble is, the index of General Sherman’s Son identifies McCloskey as “McCloskey, Cardinal William George.” William George McCloskey was also born in Brooklyn (not of the cardinal’s immediate family), went to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland as did John McCloskey, and became a bishop of Louisville, although never a cardinal: a surprising error in the book, likely due to carelessness by the editor/indexer, not the author.
And there is more to the Sherman story. The general’s bitterness was manifest in an interview he gave to a reporter, to whom he flatly stated that Cardinal McCloskey had “betrayed him.” Hoping for a cutting, Hughes-like response, the newspaper wired McCloskey, and the always restrained cardinal replied: “General Sherman’s letter to me was marked ‘Private and confidential.’”
Such taciturnity is admirable, but it’s also evidence of why McCloskey hasn’t excited the imagination of historians.
And yet . . . few men in the American hierarchy have, in their time, commanded the same level of respect as Cardinal McCloskey. Not so much today, of course, and that’s a shame.
Hughes served as archbishop for twenty-four years, McCloskey for twenty-one, and Corrigan for seventeen, yet it was only McCloskey who received the red hat. McCloskey’s elevation came about in part because the Vatican had decided the Catholic presence in America was no longer to be treated as a mission, which it had been under Hughes. Since New York had grown to be the largest see in the United States, it made sense to give McCloskey the first biretta (or, back then, the galero).
But Michael Corrigan did not receive a red hat. (All of New York’s subsequent archbishops have.) McCloskey’s elevation also had much to do with his learning and his character.
Msgr. Shelley has called John Hughes the greatest of New York’s archbishops, as surely he was. But John McCloskey carried on the Hughes legacy (building churches and schools, regulating Catholic practice, and completing construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral) without employing quite so much . . . dynamism, and without accumulating so much debt.
Hughes was a pugilist; McCloskey was a pacifist – and at a time when New York needed to heal. Best of all, he consecrated New York to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.